By Jean Jamin
Translated by Simon Torracinta
Editors' note: The editors of the History of Anthropology Review are delighted to publish this essay by Jean Jamin. As readers will know, Jamin is one of the most original historians of anthropology anywhere and a pioneer of the discipline in France. Born in 1945, he conducted ethnographic work on initiation and traditional knowledge in Côte d’Ivoire; he later pursued a singular set of studies of the intersections of anthropology with literature, visual arts, and music (notably jazz) and was one of the first to explore the intersections of surrealism and anthropology at the Musée de l’Homme. Among his works are Les Lois du silence (1977), Faulkner: le nom, le sol, et le sang (2011), and recently, Littérature et anthropologie (2018). Director of Studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales until his retirement in 2013, Jamin co-founded the review Gradhiva: Revue d’anthropologie et d’histoire des arts, now based at the Musée du quai Branly, and was editor of L’Homme: Revue française d’anthropologie from 1997 to 2005. His works have been frequently noted in our journal, but this is his first full-length essay here; it is a revised excerpt from Chapter IV (p. 119-135) of Littérature et anthropologie (Paris, CNRS Éditions, 2018).
In Look, Listen, Read (2008), published a year before his death, Claude Lévi-Strauss doesn’t pull his punches. Coming across Michel Leiris’s fragments on opera, collected in Operatics (1992b, published two years after Leiris’ death), Lévi-Strauss notes that in Leiris’ text—alongside nearly ethnographic observations on Chinese theater, Vodou, Greek Karagiozis puppetry, and penetrating reflections on Italian verismo and expressionism—we find “judgments that are disconcerting in their simplicity.” He goes on: “Other judgments are frankly shocking. He who understands Puccini so well isn’t afraid to make Leoncavallo his equal. And on what grounds? Leoncavallo apparently showed himself to be a genius ‘in bringing together these two themes—the tears behind the laughter and the truth behind the theater.’ The words ‘genius’ and ‘ingenious’ crop up three times in two pages in which Leiris talks only about the text, the libretto. Not a word about the music” (2008: 1565).
It was as if, Lévi-Strauss hints, for Leiris opera music was literally and radically attached to its place of execution, the orchestra pit: a musical accompaniment reduced, to his ears, to a kind of soundtrack. It certainly seems that “Leiris is only interested in the vocal merits and play of the singers, the mise-en-scène, the staging, and especially the dramatic action”—in sum in everything that, for Lévi-Strauss, adds up to a misunderstanding, if not a heresy. He reproached Leiris for being exceedingly accommodating of the influence of directors, stage designers, and even singers who pride themselves on “playing the actor” and who, in so doing, “insult both the poem and the music” of the opera.
In nearly the same terms, and at the same moment, the author Louis-René des Forêts (1992: 57), close to Leiris like Lévi-Strauss, evoked Leiris’s passion for the opera, writing that “he was much less interested in the music itself than the spectacle and above all the argument of the libretto. On this he was unbeatable. He was able to recount in detail every plot twist of this or that opera, even those as preposterous and tangled as Verdi’s.”
Assuredly less intimate and, therefore, less familiar with the taste and ideas that Leiris habitually exchanged with Louis-René des Forêts during fortnightly lunches at the Odéon tavern in Paris (usually just the two of them, sometimes with their painter friend Francis Bacon), Lévi-Strauss was even more driven to manifest his disappointment, even his irritation, in reading Operatics, and firmly expressed his disagreement with its reflections and opinions: “Surely no writer on opera,” he observed, “has placed such importance on anecdote (there is quite a bit of Diderot in Leiris). Whatever the story, if you allow me the expression, he gets ‘taken in.’ He gets taken in, and I have trouble following him… I couldn’t care less about most librettos; there are few operas where I feel any need to understand the words; I learn the story and I forget it just as quickly” (2008: 1565).
The serpentine style in which Leiris’s reflections are written undoubtedly reinforces their rash character, their presumptuousness or ingenuity, but in no way alters the depth of his thinking on the question of opera. Whether it was in his Journal (1992a) or in an essay expressly dedicated to the topic, this time in thoughtful and accomplished prose (1992c), Leiris remains true to form. Lévi-Strauss wasn’t wrong in his target or in his interpretation: he was properly hearing Leiris in pointing out his musical “under-hearing,” or sous-entendu. It was precisely the contrast between the occasionally extravagant nonsense of the plot and the libretto’s dramatic intensity and poetic dimension that the song, acting, and orchestration might envelop, expose, and restore that captivated Leiris; easily pleased, he was taken in by that gap. In other words, what Leiris wanted from opera was that a spectacle which often relies on pure conventions, and which is artificiality itself, becomes reality – as exemplified by Ravel’s The Child and the Spells and Poulenc’s The Breasts of Tiresias, taken from Apollinaire’s “surrealist tragedy”—and in which pretending is neither deceit or self-deception.
In spite of the importance he sometimes accorded to music, in particular to vocal and operatic music, Leiris was not a true music lover, unlike Lévi-Strauss; chamber music, symphonies, concertos, sonatas, or suites seem to have hardly touched him. He needed voice, and further still it had to be linked to the stage set, the characters singing, the drama unfolding. It had to be incorporated, upheld, present in space: in a word, materialized. Voice and gesture, which is to say, action. Similarly he had to see, rather than hear, the music dance (and even swing, in the case of jazz); it had to escape the walls and the pit, reprising Nietzsche’s famous formula: “to Mediterraneanize music” (1991: 289). More than once, Leiris evoked those operatic tableaux in which the orchestra is on the stage (Don Juan, Aïda, Wozzeck, Jenůfa, etc), involving itself not only by its sounds but by the physical presence of its musicians in the scene, the décor, even the intrigue. The opera took the theater as a theater of operations (Leiris 1992c: 320).
Louis-René des Forêts expressed his amazement at Leiris’s confession of “his near ignorance of Schumann’s A Poet’s Love and Schubert’s Swan Song, both among the most beautiful lieder cycles. Bach’s Passions and Cantatas left him numb. One wonders if he’d ever heard them!” (1992). Leiris’s attraction to jazz was no exception to his blurred and hesitant, if not negative, image of instrumental music proper: it was the theatricality of jazz rather than its harmonic, melodic or rhythmic basis that interested him most, its dramatic side, in the sense that the jazz musician—the “sound character,” in the words of André Schaeffner (1988: 106)—seems to question himself in each improvisation. He only fully reveals and realizes himself as a musician through constant risk-taking, in which his favored haunts (cellars or clubs, formerly dives and brothels) add a realistic or, so to speak, black, noir, even tragic touch to the music that plays there and that he plays with. Like what we must call Leiris’s “lyric” theater, jazz is addressed to another part of ourselves. It has the capacity to reveal not only an essential and intimate otherness, but a form of gestural, vocal, musical, aesthetic alterity which manifests itself through an assemblage of components which are added together without destroying each other, such that we will both always and never be at home. This is indeed what Leiris expected of opera: it was able to offer him, for the length of a performance, a second life.
“Something has to happen!” exclaimed Leiris in his Journal (1992a: 636), “…The spectacle, in sum, must open up into a reality, or a reality which goes beyond the aesthetic must be manifestly at stake, or—conversely—a reality must become spectacle.” It may be this question of reality and fiction (reality in fiction, fiction in reality, their mise en abyme) that intrigued and fascinated him in Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. He attached the epithet of “genius” to this opera, as Lévi-Strauss noted, though he couldn’t see in it the almost Proustian importance of memory—whereas, for the poet Leiris, Pagliacci almost emblematically manifested the relationship of reality to fiction. Starting in Manhood (1984: 18), Leiris admitted his fascination for this drama whose prologue was, since its début in 1892 in Milan, considered a kind of manifesto for verismo.
Here, then, were two anthropologists, two writers, roughly from the same generation (Leiris was born in 1901, Lévi-Strauss in 1908) and who, while expressing mutual admiration for each other’s work, felt the same passion for opera, but came to oppose each other concerning the idea and representation they had of it, even of the emotions it evoked in them. One might wonder if they were talking about the same object— if they were hearing or seeing the same thing.
This would perhaps be a trivial fact (after all, de gustibus non est disputandum) if both hadn’t been made familiar with music and opera since childhood. It’s likely that Leiris, who I’ve even ventured to call a “child of operas,” was impregnated earlier and more deeply than Lévi-Strauss, if only because of his family relationships—his cousin, the composer and musicologist Roland-Manuel, or the singer Claire Friché, who played a magnificent Salomé, the famous “Aunt Lise” of Manhood (1984: 56-58) – and because it was the favorite pastime of his parents, who for a long time enjoyed a box near the stage at the Opera which their tenant Raymond Roussel lent to Leiris’s father, his agent. The young Leiris joined these outings from the age of ten accompanied by his brothers and sister. It was an early experience and practical instruction in the opera, enriched by almost daily contact with his brother-in-law Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, another devotee of opera (although often an opponent to the enthusiasts for Richard Wagner), and occasionally with his friend the composer, conductor and theoretician of opera, René Leibowitz. It may certainly be surprising that all of this served to feed reflections based essentially on the execution, staging, dramatic turns, or performance of the singers—that is to say, on the visible, spectacular, if not merely accidental aspects of the opera—for the author of such penetrating studies on painting, sculpture and literature, and in general a man of taste and sophistication (Leiris 2011). But it’s precisely Leiris’s almost stubborn insistence on vision that most interests us and that most troubled Lévi-Strauss.
It would also be trivial if both Leiris and Lévi-Strauss hadn’t openly been inspired by opera in the conception of some of their work—or used it to bounce their thought against, even to resolve certain aesthetic, theoretical, or philosophical problems they posed.
Leiris’s discovery of Turandot in 1958 led him to the serious regret which he expressed in the new edition of Manhood (1984: 150) regarding Giaocomo Puccini, whom he had once unceremoniously scorned under the influence of his family, who hated the composer. Leiris’s enthusiasm was such that, after his suicide attempt in May 1957, he got back in the saddle, throwing himself into the writing of Fibrils, the third volume of The Rules of the Game, which he composed like an opera. He even imagined a grave for himself like Puccini’s, the tomb placed just behind a partition of his house in Torre del Lago, against which stood the master’s piano. Here again Leiris absorbed the dramatic action that echoed what he had just experienced, and that allowed him to reorganize his own world of images and personal myths. The plot of Turandot, it is true, had much to seduce him, from the secret of the birth name, to the game of “who loses, wins” in which Prince Calaf surrenders his head and his life to the bloodthirsty princess Turandot. It helped him redefine his own rules of the game: “apart from Turandot,” he remarked, “I can’t see any operatic work in which the characters of Judith (Turandot) and Lucretia (Liù) are put on stage together” (1992c: 118). Lucretia (the suicide victim) and Judith (the “decapitator”), these emblematic figures borrowed by Leiris from the ancient and biblical worlds and around which he organized his passage into manhood (so to speak, since he himself came to identify himself with Holofernes, the decapitated general), suddenly came to life through the magic of opera, but this time in an exotic and fantastical world (China) at a physical distance from himself, but no longer historical or mythical: a world you could almost touch with your finger, and in which Holofernes is triumphant. Victor of the tests to which Turandot subjected her suitors, who all previously failed, Calaf saves his head and wins the love of the princess, but loses that of his servant, Liu, who, in order not to betray him, commits suicide.
As early as 1960, Leiris, in the course of writing Fibrils, planned an article or book with the revealing title: Turandot or the Triumph of Holofernes (1992a: 548-552). But in his sketches, Leiris didn’t say a word about Puccini’s music, other than a few remarks about orchestration, polytonality, lyricism, and the expressive violence of the overture’s brass and chorus.
Lévi-Strauss’s attitude was clearly entirely different, and in a certain way the inverse. While he always manifested a strong taste for music, even confessing to Didier Éribon that he “listens to it all the time” (1988: 246), he never settled into the passivity of the average listener. His passion for music bubbled up throughout his work from Tristes Tropiques (2008: 404-405) on. It was even a disappointed if not frustrated vocation for him; he freely admitted having once set his sights on orchestral conducting or composition. Little by little he made music one of the driving threads and stimulants of his own reflection: not only to uncover its meaning but to try to resolve, through it and thanks to it, the problems posed by his research on myths. Indeed, the music lover became a musicologist, as can be seen in the “Finale” of The Naked Man, where Lévi-Strauss (1971: 589-596) offers a structural analysis of Maurice Ravel’s Boléro. We know that, published over nearly ten years and with a first volume dedicated “To music,” the Mythologies were composed like a musical work. Better still, the “Overture” to The Raw and the Cooked (164: 23) acknowledges his aesthetic and intellectual debt to Wagner, identified as the “indisputable father of the structural analysis of myths.”
So, Wagner. It’s indeed on this subject that Leiris and Lévi-Strauss most diverged in their passion for and conception of opera. Leiris was not totally immune to Wagnerian drama (he made a case for Tristan and appreciated the Ring cycle, although he didn’t like to admit it), but he couldn’t help but see in Wagner an aspect that in private he didn’t hesitate to describe as “downright annoying,” with its “jumble of relics, ideologies, and Nordic myths,” its “chromatic fogs which threaten to never lift,” and the “phraseology” which according to him encumbered the Wagnerian opera. Would Leiris have taken pleasure in posing as the Nietzsche of the Letters to Peter Gast, who classified Wagner among the composers (German, he specifies) who can only “pull at passion by the hair” and whose music “demands quite seriously that we have ears where our eyes should be” (Nietzsche 1902: 193)? Or would he have enjoyed playing the role of Claude Debussy’s Monsieur Croche (1987: 49 and 148), who perceived in Wagner’s orchestration a “multicolored putty, almost uniformly spread,” in which it became difficult to “distinguish a violin from a trombone,” and who, at the performance of Das Rheingold—at the moment of the “aquatic ‘flirting’ of the Daughters of the Rhine with the dwarf Alberich”—was “torn between the natural desire to leave, or to fall asleep while politely asking his neighbor to wake him at the penultimate measure in time for the applause”?
Confronted with Wagner’s operas, Leiris was no longer taken in. What Lévi-Strauss got from them is precisely what Leiris rejected: the operatic rendering of myth, the interweaving of the drama and the music, which doesn’t so much accompany or project characters’ voices as it precedes or even, in its organization into motifs, predestines them, approximating an infinite melody—a “flow of lava congealing block by block” (Nietzsche 1981: 235). Perhaps this is to say that Leiris, disdaining myth as thought by Levi-Strauss in its relationship to music and, in particular, to Wagnerian opera, would have attended to the opera only as it related to action, spectacle, intrigue, decor, and, beyond that, to ritual, in which we ourselves as spectators are, if not enrolled, then at least taken in. But it is a ritual of a particular type—profane, one should say—since its sacredness could be disrupted by the spectators themselves.
At heart, Leiris preferred the footlights, which illuminate and reveal the drama which is being played, over the orchestra pit, where the myth is played off the music stands. As Louis-René des Forêts suggested: “It was the theatrical side that mattered to him. In some of his texts, he insisted that going to the opera is a kind of ceremony: the hall itself, the spectators, all form a whole in a kind of ritual. In one of our last conversations, he lamented that we no longer dress up to go to the Opéra” (1992: 58). A note by Leiris on Parsifal – an object of special mockery for him as for Stravinsky, and the grounds for his hatred of Wagnerian drama—confirms the ritualistic dimension he accorded to theater and in particular to the opera, taken in their totality, not simply reduced to the scene or stage or to representation stricto sensu. Although it has an element of initiation, Parsifal was for him the antithesis of The Magic Flute, which is above all a fairy tale.
Ritual and myth, stage and pit, libretto and score… Is the emphasis placed by Leiris and Lévi-Strauss on one or the other sufficient to understand what opposes them, where opera is concerned? Is it even enough to speak of an opposition? Certainly, each of them, in their professional interests and research, gives the impression of having reproduced this difference of approach. One almost exclusively studied the domain of rites and highlighted their “theatrical aspects” (1996); the other studied the domain of myths, which he read like an orchestral score, that is, from left to right and top to bottom (1993).
But for this single question of “ritual” on which Leiris seemed to insist so much, it is certain that presenting it this way is too simple, if not simplistic. Obviously ritual suffers by comparison to the question of myth, which Lévi-Strauss apprehended in all its complexity (1983: 301-324). But Leiris did not stop there. If the opera was for him of the order of the ceremonial, it cannot be reduced only to the repetition of words and gestures, nor to so-called routine aspects; opera is also the place where the ceremonial is constantly redefined, where it is both validated and endangered in each performance. This cannot be the case of myth. In this sense the “sacredness” is warped, transgressed: to believe in what one sees on stage is not necessarily to believe in a deus ex machina working behind the scenes to turn the footlights on or off, to bring the loose strands together. Hence the attention that Leiris brought not only to the plot through which the singers are developed, but especially to their vocal, even physical, performances: to their interpretation. Even more, behind this apparent question of the rite was the question of rules and style which preoccupied him: the necessity to break rules for something to happen, but also to impose an order on the ensuing chaos by means of style. Leiris’s attraction to Verdi’s operas—which Lévi-Strauss did not like, finding them “pompous and ornamental”—whose “realism” he often emphasized, along with their historical dimension and the “human face” they manifested, likely finds its source in an aesthetic that he described as “baroque” and that since Manhood he wanted to make his own (1992a: 585-586).
In the opera, and in spectacles such as bullfighting and even the circus and music hall, Leiris sought to plunge himself into a kind of “second state” where the self becomes tangential to the world (he spoke of vertigo), to make him feel the touch of not just another but also and literally a second reality—a reality magnified by the song and décor, which can be just as cruel and “present” as the one of which it is supposed to be a copy or reflection, which of course is also placed under the spotlight. Leiris’s taste for verismo (Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Puccini) and historical and tragic operas (Verdi, Strauss, Berg) likely found its origin here. It was this phenomenological, even magical, aspect of the opera, not the mythical or structural, to which Leiris was attached, like the amazed child on whose face Ingmar Bergman lingers in the opening of his film devoted to The Magic Flute. To paraphrase one of his famous distinctions about possession rituals, the myth is lived, not simply recited; “Leave your eyes where they are!,” could be, as it was for Nietzsche, his credo.
Lévi-Strauss, too, wanted opera to transport him, but, if I may say so, with his eyes closed. And it was precisely among the “earthly things” of which Lévi-Strauss spoke that Leiris wanted to remain. For him, they encompassed the work, the interpretation and the performance itself, which also includes the audience. If he let himself be swept away while listening to an opera, it was with his eyes open.
It seems obvious that, in all that apparently separates Leiris from Lévi-Strauss on opera, we can find the now classic opposition between event (let us say representation or performance, with which Leiris was most fundamentally interested) and structure (or the score, that is to say, the music and poetry to which Lévi-Strauss was more attentive and sensitive). That said… the modernity of the work could also be an element, if not of disagreement, then at least of misunderstanding. Unless I am mistaken, apart from a brief allusion to Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and an equally brief allusion to Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, Lévi-Strauss hardly ever evoked composers of operas more modern than Debussy, Ravel or Stravinsky: Benjamin Britten (Peter Grimes), Leoš Janáček (Jenůfa), Arnold Schoenberg (Moses and Aaron), George Gershwin (Porgy and Bess), Luigi Dallapiccola (Ulisse), Gian Carlo Menotti (The Medium), and Bernd Zimmermann (The Soldiers), to name only a few, are never mentioned. This was obviously not the case for Leiris. Was this a matter of taste or of principle?
Yet there was no doubt something else that divided them, which perhaps relates to how each of them understood the fantastical element of the opera—recognizing that the fantastic is at opera’s origin, one of its central agents and elements.
If for Lévi-Strauss the fables, myths, fictions and “pleasant chimeras” created by the imagination of the Ancients prepared the advent of opera—“the music [summarizing] on its own the structures of mythical thought” (2008: 1568)—then for Leiris the fantastic-operatic is found, once again, in the sequence of events, and not in structure; it manifests itself either (as in Verdi’s The Force of Destiny) by the intrusion of the fantastic into the real, the supernatural into individual destiny, or, as in opera buffa, by the introduction of “eccentricity into ordinary life,” or again, as in Mozart’s Don Juan, by the irruption of an extraordinary being into a world of positive facts. In this, Leiris stays close to the surrealist conception of the fantastic. What bothers him about Wagner—this “grand river of opera” (1992c: 55) whose “waffling” librettos “overloaded with intentions” seem to him to have become “a stone tied around the neck of his music” (2003: 997)—is that the characters, “remote-controlled” so to speak by myth or legend, can only obey their fate, whereas in Verdi or Mozart, it is almost by inadvertence or accident that the characters trigger the “force of destiny.”
Each of us may forget the misdeeds of the Queen of the Night, but certainly not the aria that introduces her. In any case, it is such “vocal antics” that Leiris and many opera fans most anxiously follow, leaning forward in suspense over the singer’s risk of failure or misstep. Unlike in myth, the “accident” is part of the show. Fundamentally, like the circus artists described by Leiris in a beautiful letter to Max Jacob, opera singers on stage are playing the role of themselves.
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